The Invisible People


Yellow vest protesters took to the streets of Paris on Saturday for the 20th straight week of anti-government demonstrations, in spite of the French authorities’ crackdown on the movement. Last month, the French government deployed military forces and banned protesters from marching on the Champs-Élysées and in other areas, after clashes with the police, nearly 200 arrests and damage to businesses by some protesters. Police used tear gas and water cannons on crowds in Paris. More than 33,000 demonstrators nationwide joined the demonstrations Saturday, down from nearly 300,000 in November, according to government estimates. The weekly protests began last year when France announced plans to hike gas taxes, with demonstrators across France taking to the streets to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The demonstrators gained their name by wearing the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of emergency. Since then, in protests that have now lasted five months, the “yellow vests” have called out Macron’s pro-business economic policies, demanding fair wages for working- and middle-class citizens, and heavier taxation on the wealthy. We go to Paris to speak with Alexis Poulin, the co-founder of the news website Le Monde Moderne.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show in France, where “yellow vest” protesters took to the streets Saturday for the 20th straight week of anti-government demonstrations, in spite of the French authorities’ clampdown on the movement. Last month, the French government deployed military forces and banned protesters from marching on the Champs-Élysées and other areas, after clashes with the police, nearly 200 arrests and damage to businesses by some protesters. Police used tear gas and water cannons on crowds in Paris. Activists, who are now fewer in number, ended their march in Paris on the Place du Trocadéro. This is yellow vest organizer Sophie Tissier.

SOPHIE TISSIER: [translated] No, the movement is not losing power. We are simply getting organized. Indeed, we are facing a government crushing us in the media. And we do not have the same media strength as the government to highlight our ideas. They are are discrediting us. They are lying about us. French Interior Minister Castaner is lying when he says we do not have any demand. He is a liar. And I think it is unacceptable in a democracy that a government can be as deceiving and can bear such irresponsible words. The government keeps on lighting fires. Do they want a round of protest similar to March 16th? Is that what they want? Do they want people to turn to violence and insurgency because of their scorn?

AMY GOODMAN: More than 33,000 demonstrators nationwide joined the protests Saturday, down from nearly 300,000 in November, according to government estimates. The weekly protests began last year when France announced plans to hike gas taxes, with demonstrators across France taking to the streets to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s government. The demonstrators gained their name by wearing the yellow safety vests that French drivers are required to keep in their cars in case of emergency. Since then, in protests that have now lasted five months, the yellow vests have called out Macron’s pro-business economic policies, demanding fair wages for working- and middle-class people, and heavier taxation on the wealthy.

Well, we’re going to Paris right now, where we’re joined by journalist Alexis Poulin. He is co-founder of the news website Le Monde Moderne.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Alexis. So, when this first started happening, at the end of last year, and they were protesting the gas tax, in world media they were sort of being described as anti-environmentalists. But if you can explain the fundamental protest movement that this has become and the challenge to the French leadership?

ALEXIS POULIN: Well, yeah, as you said, it started with the tax gas and people, the middle class, saying, “Enough is enough. Always the same people are paying the taxes.” And it was starting with a lie, because the government said that the tax was to fund ecological reforms, which was not the case. It was just to put some more money into the government budget. And within the five months that have passed, the small protest on roundabouts become a urgent crisis and a sort of a—another one of these pick of revolution, like we had Nuit Debout, you had Occupy Wall Street, for example. And now the people are marching for Macron to stop his pro-business, neoliberal policies in France, and they demand tax justice, social justice and some clear, fair, yeah, state services for all, which is very different from the beginning. What’s amazing is that it is still on, five months down, and going on into the sixth month, and despite the violence of the police and the government trying to stop the movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Alexis, you know, France has a long and a robust history of protests and demonstrations against the government, but many commentators say that this, the yellow vest movement, has no precedent in French history. Do you agree?

ALEXIS POULIN: Yeah. I mean, often when you refer to France, there is the revolution in ’89 and May ’68, in 1968. Yellow vest is very different, in a sense that it’s been going on for five months. And there have been different weekends, but every act, because it’s an act every Saturday, there is a different color to it. It’s yellow, of course, but it can be violet—violent or not. But what is clearly different from the past is that we have people marching from very different background. And they demand now to be heard. Their claims are for more democracy, more tax justice and a future for their kids. A lot of these people in the streets are in retirement age, and they are still saying, you know, “I think my grandson or grandchildren won’t have a better future than what I lived.” And this defense of the French welfare state has to be taken into account. And what’s different from the past, from May ’68 or the other manifestation we had, is that the unions are far behind the popular movement of the yellow vests. They are not clearly supporting it, and they’re trying to distance themselves from the yellow vest protests.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Alexis, could you talk about the state response to these protests—you alluded earlier to the violence that has been inflicted on the protesters—but also the fact that the French state, following the protests and some of the damage that was done last month around the Champs-Élysées, that they’ve deployed the Opération Sentinelle forces? Can you explain what that operation was and the significance of these armed soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the streets of Paris?

ALEXIS POULIN: Yeah. We have, in France, since the terror attacks back in 2016, Sentinelle Operation. They are people from the Army patrolling the streets and public buildings to prevent any terror attacks. During the past yellow vest march, they were there, and they are protecting public monuments. They are not supposed to be confronting the protester. And what wasn’t clear is when the government said that they will require more Army forces for Sentinelle for the act 20th. There were a lot of questions about: Why are you requiring the Army? This is not a democracy that should do that. And there have been some clarification from the minister of interior, the Ministry of Defense, saying that the Sentinelle forces will be, as ever, only looking after the monuments and the buildings and the public places, but certainly not going confronting the protester.

But what it says about this government is that it’s escalating in violence and trying to deter people to go marching in the streets. There have been over 2,000 people who have been injured by LBD, you know, this flash ball weapon, and people have lost limbs. And all this without any coverage by the French media for two months. And it took one journalist, David Dufresne, who actually monitored all this police violence, so that eventually we managed to talk about government violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis, many have commented on the lack of racial diversity of the protests—immigrants, minorities suffering the disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty, yet they are not leading these protests. Talk about who’s being represented here.

ALEXIS POULIN: Yes. I mean, at the beginning, on the roundabouts, there were more diversity, women and people from communities. Right now you could say that the people who are marching every weekend are more the sort of small-town France or the peripheric France, the people that are on the fringe. They are the invisible people for the elite, the people who govern. It’s written in Guilluy books, for example. There is something similar to what you have in the U.S., where you have the cities against a rural country. And it’s the Trump America, in some extent, but also with protesters coming from the left wings. All political colors are there. But clearly, it’s the people who are left behind globalization and who can see what is the deal for them in this march towards a global market.

AMY GOODMAN: And the comments that if these were black French people who were protesting, there would be many more injuries, that they would be attacked or could be killed. And also, what about the charges of racism and anti-Semitism?

ALEXIS POULIN: Yes. I mean, the government have tried everything to stop the movement. Police violence, we talk about it. But the other thing was also to pretend the movement was anti-Semitic, racist, to prevent people joining the movement. It’s not as more racist or anti-Semitic as the rest of French society. Of course, you have some people with these beliefs, but they are certainly not the vast majority of people in the yellow vest movement. And the key issue about police violence is clearly, as you state, mainly going on for years in French suburbs, and it’s untalked about. And this is now where these people, that are mostly white people from rural regions, are experiencing what is the violence of the state in France.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Alexis, could you also talk about the way in which Macron has responded to the protests? I mean, he’s disliked intensely not just for his neoliberal policies, but for the outright contempt that he’s demonstrated towards the poor in France, telling, for instance, a labor activist who he was in a dispute with while he was economic minister, who pointed out—the labor activist pointed out that Macron’s suit was worth 1,600 euros, and Macron responded by saying, “Well, the best way to afford a suit is to work.” And there are several examples of comments like this that Macron has made.

ALEXIS POULIN: Yeah, Emmanuel Macron is very famous for his little comments. And the way he responded to the movement was with contempt, as you said. The first two months, he was in denial. He didn’t want even to talk or mention the movement. It was just as if it didn’t exist. After that, he tried to give out some money and make some measures to answer the claims of the protesters. And what we see after that, it didn’t work to stop the movement, so came in the violence of the police forces.

And now what we have is Emmanuel Macron touring France with the “big debate,” as he calls it, that’s supposed to have French people talking to each other and finding solutions to get out of this crisis. But the “big debate” has been so far a one-man show, a stand-up for Emmanuel Macron, talking to mayors, talking to people, talking to kids, talking to retired people and just exposing his policy, because we’re coming into a phase where our European elections are coming, and this is a staged campaign for his party, En Marche. So, the answer has been clearly a war towards the yellow vests rather than a dialogue. And what we have now is two camps that are certainly not talking to each other and don’t want to stop this fight going on.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, where do you see the yellow vest protests going—300,000 months ago, now around 30,000? What’s going to happen next?

ALEXIS POULIN: Well, that’s the big question mark. Is it—because May is coming, the spring is coming, so people could come back to the roundabouts and having more meetups and start again the movement with more power. Right now, clearly, there are less and less people in the streets because of the violence, because of the weather, because of the time—it’s been six months. But it could be that because of the conclusion of the “big debate,” there could be a national disappointment about what the measure will be, announced by Emmanuel Macron, and then will start again a bigger protest. Whatever happens is that people might stop or take out their yellow vest; the anger in the French society is still there, and it will be going on for a few years, without political solution.

AMY GOODMAN: Alexis Poulin, we want to thank you very much for being with us, journalist based in Paris, co-founder of the news website Le Monde Moderne.

Leave a comment